Author Archives: Bill Meehan

Bill Meehan
Bill Meehan, P.E., heads the worldwide utility industry solutions practice for Esri. Author of Enhancing Electric Utility Performance with GIS, Modeling Electric Distribution Performance with GIS, Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Bill is a registered professional engineer. Follow Bill on Twitter.

Recent Posts

Killing Old Habits

To stay profitable and transform business, utilities must break with old habits.

There’s a well-known saying that goes, “Old habits die hard.” All my life, I’ve struggled to manage my weight. I’ve probably lost 1,000 pounds in my life, but the problem is I’ve gained 1,050 pounds. If I really wanted to lose weight permanently, I would kill off my old bad habits for good, not just suspend them for a while during the diet and then bring them back again as soon as I lose enough weight. To really transform yourself, old, negative habits must die.

Electric companies are going through huge change. Regulators insist on unbundling utility components: generation, transmission, distribution, and retail services. In the old days of vertical integration, electric companies could make money on the strength of their business diversity. Today that’s less so. And to make matters worse, energy delivery,  transmission and distribution (T&D), faces lots of unknowns, including weather, theft, vandalism, terrorism, and public scrutiny.

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Risk. Utility. And location.

GIS gives utilities a repeatable means of mitigating risk and minimizing surprises.

The probability that something bad will happen makes us think of our protectors: insurance companies. Insurance companies accumulate the combined risk of policyholders. Insurers lose money if bad things happen. They make money if bad things don’t happen.

Some say utilities are risk averse. It’s true that utilities historically are conservative. They avoid taking actions that could trigger unwanted consequences. The problem is, the cost of remaining conservative rises constantly. Given recent economic troubles, utilities must learn to avoid negative consequences while also avoiding overspending to do so. The situation gets worse when you consider utility infrastructure ages faster than many utilities can afford to replace. So as facilities enter disrepair, hazards abound. Reliability suffers.

What happens? Continue reading

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Seven Ways to Modernize Utility GIS

Take a hard look at your GIS.  It’s probably time to modernize.

I hate the word “selfie.” But this new concept is everywhere. Over the past year or so, everyone seems to taking pictures of themselves and tweeting them. This seems awfully self-indulgent. Yet, maybe it’s a good thing to take a hard look at yourself once in a while. Maybe taking a selfie gives you a chance to re-invent yourself.

Utilities need to reassess their practices, too, particularly in this age of rapid change touching everything from climate and renewable resources to technology. One technology utilities might want to take a hard look at is their GIS. After all, utilities have been using GIS for ages. So it’s probably time to modernize. Here are my seven ways utilities can modernize their GIS.

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Knowing When Your Lights Will Come Back On

Knowledge is power. Does your utility have enough of the right spatial intelligence?

“More information is always better than less.” — Simon Sinek, Author

Sinek would never agree that “less is more.” The author went on to describe the value of more information: “When people know the reason things are happening, even if it’s bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly,” Sinek stated. “Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions.”

When I worked for a power company, it was my job to make sure people were not in the dark—literally. When people were out of power, we figured out why: A snow storm had drizzled ice on the power lines. Or some drunk had crashed into a utility pole. Or else some stupid (now dead) squirrel had climbed onto the lines and forgotten that his tail was a very nice conductor. Continue reading

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Insight beyond the Numbers

Location analytics lets you visualize your key performance indicator data on maps.

Russ was one of my favorite bosses. He was the president of the utility I worked at. I ran electric operations. Russ was an accountant, a bean counter by training. I was (and am) an electrical engineer. Yet we agreed on almost everything about running a gas and electric utility.

Russ once told me that there are only four things you have to do to be successful at running a utility. Only four? Yes. Make money, keep customers happy, keep employees happy and safe, and stay out of trouble. Continue reading

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Big, Bad Data

Context is crucial in making big data useful, and the key to that context is often location.

Move over, smart grid. A new buzz phrase has bumped you out of first place in utility IT: big data.

As with smart grid, no one really knows what big data means. We know it’s big in information technology, though. And I’m even not sure that the term “big data” is even grammatically correct.

I recently interviewed a candidate for a job and asked him what he knew about GIS. In his response he mentioned big data perhaps 10 times and smart grid only seven. I concluded that big data was now bigger in the utility IT space than smart grid. Continue reading

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Today’s GIS Forecast: Partly Cloudy

Firewalls protect web-based GIS from the dangers of the cloud

When I was interning at a power company, the utility industry had just adopted a revolutionary technology: SCADA. Today, SCADA is so common most people don’t even bother to spell out the acronym (supervisory control and data acquisition system). But back then, SCADA was controversial. It eliminated the need for substation operators.

Utilities staffed operators who could act immediately in an emergency. They closed breakers, put out fires, and called for help. They checked fluid levels and did maintenance, cleaning, and inspections. They made the rounds, took the readings, spoke to the dispatchers, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Continue reading

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What about the Big Problem?

Don’t think you’re solving it. Know you are.

For decades, utilities have used some form of digital mapping system. It could be a CAD system, an automated mapping/facilities management (AM/FM) system, or a full-featured GIS. Yet the vast majority of utilities use the GIS mainly as a basis for network documentation. Sure, it often is the basis for asset management, outage management, and network design. That’s good. Utilities have come a long way from the old paper maps and awkward processes of keeping records up to date. Yet, many don’t see their GIS as a true mapping or location platform. They often don’t see it as one that extends into nearly every corner of the company.

Many senior executives still view GIS as just a component, albeit a vital component, of operations groups instead of a strategic tool to help run the business. Executives do not necessarily see the GIS as a strong tool in helping solve their big problems.  Continue reading

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The Deadly Backlog: A Hole in the Safety Net

Interactive Maps Communicate Real-time Information to Plug the Holes

We have all heard the term safety net. It’s a system, a policy, a program, or device used to protect its owners just in case something bad happens. For example, people often refer to social security as a safety net for older people who don’t have a pension. The term comes to us from the circus, where large, roped nets are set up below trapeze artists. Without the nets, sweaty palms or small distractions could mean instant death. But with the net, they fall harmlessly and land with only a fright. However, most trapeze artists never want to fall. First of all, falling is a sign of failure. Second, when the term originated, the circus actors didn’t trust the integrity of the net, as circuses had and have notoriously bad maintenance. Safety nets have flaws. Trapeze artists know that. Some nets even have holes. Continue reading

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Measure the Full Value of Your GIS Investment

Beyond ROI, Key Performance Indices and GIS Close Performance Gaps

[Note:  This is the third post in our new series about Managing GIS.]

A common question we get from our utility customers is, “What is the return on investment (ROI) for GIS?” The reason is most utilities need to justify the cost of building, upgrading, or enhancing their GIS (e.g., investing in a tablet-based damage-assessment app) or doing the same with their GIS data. That justification takes the form of a financial study that answers these questions: What is the payback period of GIS? What is its impact on balance and income sheets? What is the cash flow for the project?

Utility financial people call these hard-dollar savings. Hard-dollar savings are a common measuring stick by which to judge the merits of an investment. Continue reading

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